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The money will roll right in

Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko is back. But what was he all about? Meant to symbolise the finan

It's been 23 years since the release of Wall Street; time does fly when you're witnessing the fall of western civilisation. Two worldwide re­cessions later, Oliver Stone's film still has the emotional complexity of a flicker book. But it emerged early enough during the spread of yuppiedom to give the illusion of having fostered or colluded in the rise of the phenomenon it was commenting on. Perhaps it wasn't an illusion after all. Social and cultural movements can only benefit from artistic ratification, and Wall Street provided that as much as Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, published the same year, or Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991), neither of which was any more successful in killing off the targets of its ire. Apparently intended as character assassinations on a stereotype, all three instead had the effect of a massage.

Wall Street opened in the United States in December 1987, less than two months after Black Monday. In the ruthless figure of Gordon Gekko, an arbitrageur but not a gentleman, the film provided a personification of that catas­trophe's unseen catalysts. Like most fictional characters that aspire to the iconic, Gekko came with a distinctive idiom and image. Slicked-back hair gave him the aerodynamic sleekness of the alien in Alien. And he had catchphrases, too, which can only have boosted his appeal, Loadsamoney-style. Greed was good, and lunch was for wimps. Red braces, strangely enough, escaped all censure.

The popular myth that Gekko was the villain of the piece, conceived as an abhorrent symbol of his times, has been recycled so often that we have begun to believe it. But it's no wonder Wall Street came to double as a recruiting drive for prospective bankers when Gekko was the sole source of vim in the movie. Remove him from the action and your Bloody Mary becomes a tomato juice.

When the single focus of an audience's int­erest and entertainment is a shark in a chalk-stripe suit, you can hardly protest when he also becomes an object of adulation. At least when Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs, he had, in Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, actors of roughly equal heft. The face-offs in Wall Street between Charlie Sheen, as the go-getting young broker Bud Fox, and Michael Douglas, as Gekko, were fatally uneven by contrast.

Gekko came at a ripe time for Douglas - the actor's run of victimised, even feminised, heroes (Basic Instinct, Disclosure, The Game) had begun a few months earlier with Fatal Attraction, but his range could also stretch to fury, as proved by Wall Street and, later, The War of the Roses and Falling Down. And Sheen? Let's just say that you can't write a scene in which he asks the night sky, "Who am I?", as he does in Wall Street, and then expect that to take care of depth. At least the sky refrains from answering: "Middling actor with the common touch. Got where you are 'cos of Dad."

The absence of any feasible threat to Gekko is only half the problem. Just when he is on the brink of defeat, as he is at the end of the film, when Bud becomes a snitch for the authorities, the picture turns discreetly away; it's like a nature documentary that cannot bring itself to show an ailing lion being savaged by hyenas. That simple editorial choice gives the lie to the notion that Wall Street is a diatribe against Gekko and his ilk. Sentimentality wins out: the sight of Gekko looking vulnerable remains too awful to be envisaged anywhere but in our imagination.

In fact, British television audiences enjoyed the privilege of seeing Gekko subtly undermined. When the ageing scam merchant Del Boy (David Jason) in John Sullivan's BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses took to wearing Gekko's trademark braces and brandishing a then-exotic mobile phone in an attempt to affect yuppie swagger, something in his absurd pantomime reflected back on to Wall Street itself. Del Boy's hero-worship made Gekko seem ridiculous and peevish in a way that the film had failed to do.

This is where Stone's sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps comes in. Its greatest worth lies in finally facing up to the sight of Gekko on his uppers. The film begins in 2001, with Gekko's release from prison after serving eight years for insider trading. His raggedy mane looks like silver seaweed; his face is as crumpled and faded as an old dollar bill.

Moving forward another seven years, Gekko is now the author of a cautionary bestseller (title - Is Greed Good?) and can be found attracting queues at bookstore signings and idolatry on lecture tours. In the audience is a young trader, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who is engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan).

Knowing that audiences in 2010 will be slower to root for a financially motivated protagonist, the screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have supplied Jake with the lust for a more acceptable kind of green: he's trying to convince his paymasters to throw their weight behind green energy. But as the markets crash and his investment-banking firm goes under in the absence of a government bailout, Jake accepts a job with Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a vampiric banker who is the new film's substitute for the Gekko of old.

It's an odd quirk of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps that it feels simultaneously topical and dated. On the one hand, the film deals in the subject matter and jargon with which we are all now au fait. Even five years ago, the world might have assumed that quantitative easing was one of the many services that Charlie Sheen once paid Heidi Fleiss to perform. Now we know better. The flipside of having experienced first-hand the discomfort of life during a recession is that the drama of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, restricted as it is to penthouse rather than pavement, can feel distinctly remote. Dominic Savage's 2009 BBC film, Freefall, was made for a fraction of the cost of Stone's movie, but the ease with which it moved between culpability and suffering, showing the consequences for ordinary families of the bankers' recklessness, puts both Wall Street pictures to shame. Engaging with a common reality is an admirable ambition for a Hollywood film, but it must be halfway to failure when a key plot-point concerns a $100m trust fund placed in jeopardy, or when Jake tells his mother: "I'm lending you $30,000 that I barely even have." (You've got to love that "barely".)

Gordon Gekko takes a back seat in the new film, but the old problems pertaining to him have only partly been solved: there are still no other characters to compete with his magnetism. There is the added weight, too, of Douglas's off-screen baggage. The screenwriters have given Gekko a backstory involving a wayward son who met a sticky end years earlier; Douglas's own son, Cameron, is currently serving a prison sentence for drug offences, and the actor has admitted to being an unsatisfactory father - a confession that he repeats here, in character. And though the film was finished before Douglas received his recent throat cancer diagnosis, that doesn't make it any easier to listen to him employing cancer analogies when discussing speculation, or the human capacity for greed.

If the defining flaw of the first Wall Street film was its refusal to cut its ties with Gekko, then the sequel suffers from a similar excess of fidelity to the character. Given the apologetic air of the sequel, and the contrite climate in which it was conceived, it is no surprise that Gekko ends the story here as a changed man. But the qualities that we seek in the people who run the banking industry are not the same as those that make for compelling char­acters in fiction.

And while it would be wonderful if real-life Gekkos underwent the transformation that we see on screen, it is an own-goal for the film that some of us will come out thinking that we liked Gekko better when he was bad. To hear him draw to a close the combined four hours of the Wall Street movies by admitting that human beings are "a mixed bag" carries all the satisfaction of watching Hannibal Lecter tucking into a nut roast.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (certificate 12A) opens on 6 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror